Peter K. Andersson: “I am a real human being” Characters and Deviants in Town and Country in Late Nineteenth Century Southern Sweden

The Local Character as an Object of Study

In the folklore records collected by the folklore archive in Lund in the first half of the twentieth century, we find hundreds of stories about “characters” (frequently referred to as original in Swedish). What is a character? Anyone who has grown up in a Swedish village or small town in the last century is probably familiar with the term. However, the definition becomes less clear the more we try to narrow it down, based on the fact that a review of the material indicates that the term could be used quite widely at the beginning of the twentieth century and that stories about characters include accounts of most people who were seen as deviants or outsiders. Some statements appear to have a very wide notion of what constitutes a character. An account from Trelleborg at the turn of the century mentions a farmer, Anders Andersson, who used to be seen driving his loads of hay through town. But, the source says, he never sat on top of the cart, but walked next to it, ”which constituted his eccentricity.”2 At the other end of the spectrum, we find Johan Nilsson in the village of Slimminge close to Sturup. Nilsson was generally known as the “Slimminge Suitor”; both due to the fact that he put an ad in the newspaper to help him find a wife after his return from America, and also due to the fact that he liked to watch young girls at the beach in Malmö. Nilsson dressed differently and also had a habit of spontaneously undressing on the square in Slimminge.3

The characters identified in the sources therefore constitute a highly heterogeneous group. One apparent general categorization that seems to exist is to separate the characters into “local characters” and “urban characters”. Apart from that, the only criterion seems to be some form of deviancy, even if this deviancy, as in the case of Anders Andersson, at times appears to be quite mild. One may also question the use of this term in Swedish rural culture outside of the accounts found in the folklore records. A large number of interview transcriptions are formulated in such a way that the word seems to originate from the researcher conducting the interview rather than the interviewee him- or herself. The responses cover a whole host of social groups with different types of deviant characteristics: travellers, rascals, witches, beggars, alcoholics, vagabonds and peddlers. It would obviously be interesting to explore the use and changed meanings of the word “character” (or original in Swedish). However, due to the detected shift in meaning of this term, I instead feel that stories about characters is a promising starting point for a more general study on perceptions of identity and deviancy in the social collectives found in the lower social spheres, which are frequently neglected in the history of the reaction to change in the late nineteenth century.

Ethnologist Lynn Åkesson’s detailed study on how rural characters presented themselves, as well as their role in rural social interactions, aims to move beyond deviance sociology and the influential “labelling theory”. The labelling theory is based on the notion that deviant individuals are created in their meeting with their surroundings, where they are singled out as different. The limited room for manoeuvre entailed in this role means that the deviant is able to get some respect if he or she confirms and develops his or her deviant identity. Åkesson criticizes this line of reasoning, mainly by pointing out the level of passivity assigned to the deviant in this interaction, and also by arguing that the labelling theory is mainly applicable in cases of anonymous urban interaction. Her studies show that the characters, by definition, cannot be reduced to a stereotype. She thus goes on to study the situation from the perspective of the character him- or herself by carrying out intimate interviews with a self-proclaimed character.4

Studies on local characters and deviant individuals in rural communities have mainly been carried out with an approach based on ethnology or folklore. This makes sense, given the fact that characters usually appear as mythical characters, are only documented in the form of orally transmitted stories and are usually associated with a specific set of anecdotes that have subsequently been edited. American ethnologists have discussed these anecdotes as a specific genre within oral storytelling in a way that sometimes also highlights the character as a social phenomenon. In her thesis, Diane Tye has been inspired by the labelling theory, as she explains how the characters tend to reinforce their deviancy in order to achieve a measure of power in their stigmatized social position. She also explains how they play a decisive role in the social collective as tools for the handling of issues related to envy and inequality in everyday life.5 However, using an approach that is more based on cultural history, it is possible to add other dimensions to this picture – dimensions that show how the singling out of characters in local communities mirrors historical processes.


The Making of the Modern Eccentric

The significance of Åkesson is to a large extent based on her goal to separate the study of characters and deviants from research focusing on popular beliefs as well as research on characters focusing on stories about characters. In the background of Åkesson’s account, we are able to detect the outlines of the modernization of society during the twentieth century; something that alters the conditions for nonconformity. She identifies economic and social flexibility, along with a growing subcultural heterogeneity, as contributing factors to a change that has made it “easy to cultivate your uniqueness but difficult to get it recognized as something original.”6 In this brief conclusion, it is possible to detect an alternate version of the history of modern society as the history of the establishment of tolerance. What Åkesson is here suggesting is that something important has been lost in the everyday relationships in the social collective; in other words, a historical perspective that is implicitly linked to a larger story about the decline of social life.

Åkesson’s account may be presented next to Michel Foucault’s hypothesis presented in a lecture series collected in the book known as Abnormal. According to this hypothesis, heterogeneous perceptions with regard to deviancy and abnormality were systematized in the nineteenth century. This resulted in a transition where ideas about the monstrous and the abnormal were transformed into social rules of conduct and modern psychiatry. Social categories became increasingly general and people started to think in terms of classes and races in a more general and absolute way compared to what was common in premodern times.7 The transition from a premodern indeterminate categorization to a social fragmentation based on cultural diversity and mass culture – via a period of strict social typology during the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century and as seen in Åkesson and Foucault – is a thought-provoking history. Unfortunately, it only represents a very small part of both Åkesson’s and Foucault’s works, and the reliability of this history also suffers from the fact that it is not based on a direct focus on the actual historical account.

It is thus possible for us to study the role of the local character and public persona from a historical perspective in order to see how this reflects the everyday tolerance and interaction in the social collective during the transition from the premodern to the modern era. Recent historical studies on deviant individuals have shown an interest in exploring how eccentricity and eccentrics have been perceived, in particular in an English context. Eccentricity is here described as a term that started to be used in the eighteenth century – in particular for peculiar members of the higher echelons of society – as a sign of an ambivalent approach with regard to the talk about individualism and an English national identity. Historian Paul Langford’s discussion on the term has been influential for subsequent studies. Langford shows how both “eccentricity” and “originality” were used for describing wilfulness in eighteenth century England. The former term became more common in the following century, whereas the latter was assigned a different meaning. (Something that did not occur in Sweden.) The function of eccentricity in the English context was to serve as a kind of safety valve for expressions of deviancy. The characteristics of the eccentric deviated from the norm and were not encouraged. They could, however, be tolerated and they also expressed individuality in eyes of others. This particularly applied to the exaggerated characteristics of the identified eccentric that were seen as quintessentially English, such as being shy, frugal or conservative. However, other characteristics, such as religious virtue, extreme extroversion or sexual deviancies, were not tolerated by contemporaries and thus did not create any eccentrics.8

What Langford’s analysis emphasizes in particular is the link between eccentricity and English conservatism and nostalgia. Other scholars following in his footsteps have made similar observations. In a few articles, historian James Gregory has studied the phenomenon of collecting biographical facts about “eccentrics” in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Gregory has here shown how these characters were used to represent a past consisting of social intimacy and tolerance and how they were ”deliberately used to assert individuality at a time of concern about national and racial decline, and fears about cultural homogeneity.”9 Apart from literary historian Miranda Gill’s well-researched book on the role of eccentricity in the cultural life of nineteenth century Paris, there are no detailed studies of this phenomenon outside the English cultural sphere. Gill studies everything from bohemians in the art world to circus freaks, which results in a fairly broad study on the meaning of the term in different contexts. This, however, at times makes Gill’s work less relevant with regard to the focus of this article. Gill detects a different approach to eccentricity and challenging conventions that is based on the unstable and changing social order of post-revolutionary France.10 Gill’s conclusions thus in some way emphasize the view on eccentricity espoused by the English historians as an expression of conservatism and an anxiety with regard to the ruthless advance of modernity, but she also highlights the dichotomy in nineteenth century bourgeois culture: on the one hand, the belief in individualism and, on the other hand, the desire to prevent social fragmentation and anarchy.

Research on the culture of eccentricity thus indicates that the nostalgic perception of characters as a remainder from the past, as implicitly brought up by Åkesson and Foucault, is a story whose formula has been invoked for a long time. We may, for instance, see that the process through which characters or deviant personalities are distinguished in the form of local celebrities has survived into our own time. Swedish documentary Plötsligt i Vinslöv [Suddenly in Vinslöv] (1999) and television show 100 höjdare [100 highlights] (2006) are examples of how highlighting quirky or odd people has an enduring appeal. In these cases, we may detect a distinct urban perspective on people who are often described as rural or outdated in a way that is both different from, and similar to, the perspective seen in the past.

These thought-provoking hints of a more complex relationship between stories about characters and modern history call for a study with a more direct focus on the role of the character in history. In this article, I want to explore how deviancy in the form of identified characters was handled by the local social collective of the late nineteenth century. The aim is to study the significance of these characters in the formation of local identities and also how eccentricity in a context of southern Sweden mirrored aspects of modernity and urbanity. The local and everyday perspective that is frequently overlooked when historians want to discuss how modern society came about may provide a more nuanced picture of interhuman relations and social change at a time that is often discussed on the basis of its consequences, whether these are considered to be tolerance and equality or individualism and selfishness.


Studying Characters

In order to answer the question as to how the collective handles deviancy, I undertake a narrative analysis of the character stories while using a cultural history focus. It is possible to use two approaches when studying the phenomenon of characters: studying the character as an actor or studying how others perceive the character. As mentioned above, Åkesson is critical of research making the characters passive by looking at their identity as a result of being singled out by their surroundings. She then proceeds to study the character as an actor. In this article, however, I would argue that an analysis of the recorded stories may be more fruitful than believed by Åkesson. This seems important, given the fact that such an analysis has never been carried out on the relevant material from a Swedish historical perspective; especially as this may shed some light on the aspects discussed in ethnological research and the historical research conducted in English. However, we need to ask ourselves whether the stories about characters found in folklore records and in some local literature may be seen as reliable sources.

If, on the one hand, we want to study how the character was perceived by others and the way in which the character was adopted into the local folklore and there processed, these sources are useful, even though they may be of a somewhat later date than when the stories were created and orally transmitted. If, on the other hand, we want to study the behaviours and motivations of the character, these sources become less reliable. We must then ask ourselves to what extent the picture of the character has been reshaped and improved upon in the transmission, to what extent the narrator adds information from his or her own imagination and also how much the narrator actually remembers. The analysis must therefore focus on the memory process that resulted in these stories. American ethnologists have studied this memory process from a folkloric perspective, where they have theorized “the local-character anecdote”.11 However, apart from the mythological process shaping a local character and his or her legend, we must assume that a social process takes place based on the surrounding social collective’s reaction and adaptation to a deviant individual, but also based on the selection of details concerning the deviant’s personality and life that remain in the collective memory after the deviant has passed away.

Since the social processes I want to study have been preserved for us in the form of stories, a narrative perspective thus seems suitable. The concept of “narrative identity” has been used for emphasizing the time factor in human identities, and also how an individual adopts his or her identity from a surrounding narrative based on social factors. Margaret Somers argues for using this term in order to bring more nuance to what she sees as the overly essentialist notion of social categories that tends to arise in research in the field of the humanities. Social identities are never stable or set in stone, but are constantly redefined based on changes in space, time and relationships. Identities are constantly subject to renegotiation in the field of tension between the surrounding communities’ narratives about their kinship and the changes that take place in the actual relationships.12 Based on this awareness concerning how identities are dependent on the narrative about themselves and how this is constantly transformed as a result of external events, it is possible to adopt a theoretical approach with regard to the process of social identity-building that takes place in the folklore records. The singled out character and his or her attributes serve as a contrast to the surrounding collective identity, but may also be seen in a more interactive manner in relation to his or her environment than when using a simplified dualistic model of society and “the other”.

When it comes to the use of this material, I should include a note on the reliability of the sources. The folklore records came about in a situation that was to a large extent shaped by the interviewer recording the account. However, several of the records collected in the folklore archive in Lund are texts submitted by the informant him- or herself; frequently influenced by some folklore competition arranged by local newspapers. The tone employed in the records is frequently nostalgic and serves as a contrast to the present time. Sometimes the person recording the account has tried to transcribe the dialect used in the statements, but it is often difficult to track down any audio recordings and thereby determine whether the dialect used belongs to informant him- or herself or whether it is a nostalgic reconstruction made by the person recording the story. In defence of the material, however, it could be said that even if the stories are recollected several decades after the events they describe (most records were made between the 1920s and the 1940s), there is much in the anecdotes themselves and in the details they provide that reflect what was told when the character was still alive.13 At the same time, we are interested in the array of oral history that crystalized from the collective’s interaction with the identified characters; thus making these reconstructions after the fact the subject of this study. So, which individuals should we focus on in order to deal with the problem discussed above with regard to the definition of characters? Since the point of departure of this study is not exploring what the word “character” refers to, but rather the social relationship to, and treatment of, deviancy, I think it is more appropriate to separate individuals who are mentioned on the basis of their deviant nature instead of carrying out a discursive analytical study on the concept of “character”. Lynn Åkesson chooses to define the local character as a kind of nonconformist individual living in self-imposed solitude. The individual who forms the main part of its study has very clear notions about his identity as a character. Reading folklore records about characters in Swedish folklore archives results in a more complicated picture. Here, as mentioned above, a character may be anything from a hobo who has become known in several nearby villages during his or her trips, to someone who is definitely a part of the local collective – a farmer or an important person attached to the church – but who distinguishes him- or herself through his or her perceived distinctive behaviours. That is why we should pick out a few of the many characters referred to, with different characteristics, in order to better see the strategies and patterns of the surrounding collective when it comes to how it treated and spoke of the deviant or the strange. There is a definite risk that we hereby produce something resembling a typology of characters of the kind that was popular in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, at this stage, our focus must primarily be on the stories and the storytellers rather than on the people being discussed.


Nils Knös and the Formulas of the Character Stories

There is a plethora of stories about characters in the Swedish folklore archives. In this small study, I have carried out a close reading of the records found in the folklore archive in Lund in the province of Scania. In addition, I have also carried out a general review of stories from other provinces (mainly in southern Sweden), and in my discussion on the relationship between the character stories in town and country, I include references to records from Stockholm. The heterogeneous nature of these records makes it difficult to provide examples. Nevertheless, as a demonstration of the repetitive nature of the stories in terms of style, I discuss a few select cases in this article. The first concerns the local character Nils Knös, who has been the subject of a relatively large number of independent records; both in the folklore archive as in printed texts. The bulk of the references come from records collected by dialect researcher Ingemar Inger during the 1920s, and they are presented in a longer descriptive article on Knös printed in 1956.14

We are told that his full name was Nils Fredriksson Knös, that he was born in Mellan-Grevie in the district of Oxie in 1824 and that he passed away in 1890. Knös occasionally lived in the poorhouse of Mellan-Grevie, but his fame seems to be based on his habit of going on begging treks in the surrounding villages, and he is mentioned in most parts of southwestern Scania. The stories about Knös are representative of a large number of character stories, as they contain three recurring components: statements about the character’s deviant appearance, statements about the character’s peculiarities and irrational or crazy phenomena, as well as more or less formulaic anecdotes where the character serves as the protagonist. All of these components figure very prominently in the records; however, the third is the one that receives the most space. This may be a reflection of the interest in folktales and legends among the people collecting these records, but it is also a clear indication of how oral culture to significant degree focused on such funny stories at this time. As these anecdotes have to some extent already been analysed in ethnological studies and are particularly fruitful as a source for the structure of popular legends (i.e., what we now often refer to as urban legends), the emphasis here will not be on analysing the form of these stories, but rather an attempt to identify how the attitude toward the characters found in these stories reflect a time-bound culture. But let us begin by looking at the format of these statements. How is the eccentricity of Knös expressed in the records? On several occasions in his story, Hans Almgren in Burlöv says that “he was stupid.” Another informant claims that he came from a rich farmer family, but that “he became daft.” Another informant, however, makes the claim that “he was both shrewd and stupid”, whereas a fourth informant says that “he was not as thick as he made himself out to be.”15 This duality when it came to the character’s lack of sense is a recurring feature in stories about other characters. It is often said that the person is retarded or insane, but there is almost always some degree of uncertainty; both with regard to as to whether the character’s mental deficiency is genuine or exaggerated for the sake of getting attention or sympathy, and also as to whether the character’s stupidity is not a part of a strategy to trick the people around him or her into revealing their own stupidity. This is the most common theme in anecdotes about characters. In the case of Nils Knös, this relationship is shown in a story found in a book published in 1932 containing stories about local characters “from the latter part of last century.” Here we find many similar episodes in which Knös is assigned the role of someone who calls it like he sees it. The local castle gentry is welcomed by the crowd outside of church before the service. The popular estate owner steps out of the carriage, as does his new wife, who is said to be cold and strict. Knös then walks up and says what everyone is thinking: “Our poor sweet baron who’s married such a damned shrew.” In a similar incident, the local tax collector is visiting an inn. Knös, who is sitting in a corner with a few farm boys, cannot stop looking at him and finally goes over to him and says: “The poor Devil who will once greet you, sir. When you, sir, arrive in Hell, he (the Devil) will never have a good day again.”16

In these stories, Knös gets to say out loud what everyone else is thinking; thereby through his naive frankness becoming an inadvertent transmitter of wisdom. These types of stories also tend to end with the character making a biting comment using his or her distinct dialect, which in a way works as a down-to-earth reaction to what is construed as pompous or pretentious in the situation at hand.17 However, the characters just as frequently play the role of a victim of a prank. Knös is no exception. According to an informant, he was on several occasions mocked by “the students in Lund”. They once bought him a train ticket and pushed him into a ladies’ compartment, “and of course Knös was unable to leave the ladies alone.”18 The character as an uncontrollably randy man is by the way a recurring feature. Funnily enough, “the students in Lund” also appear as the antagonists in a series of stories about a character from the village of Häggenäs, Sven Orre, in which the students decide to play a prank on him. At the end, however, Orre manages to outsmart them and emerges victorious from the battle.19 That the students in Lund are the ones acting as an opponent to the character may be a reflection of their reputation as pranksters, but it also boosts the perception of the character as a shrewd and cunning person, who by using his or her common sense in the end succeeds to trick, or make a good comeback to, those who are normally seen as intelligent or urbane.

These anecdotes thus contain a set of ingredients indicating a certain attitude. The character is mentally challenged or different, but thus unexpectedly becomes someone who speaks the truth, as well as a representative of the rural, which is considered rude and uneducated but also down-to-earth and critical toward those in power (both in terms of economic and academic power). This attitude may be interpreted as related to a time- and context-bound farmer culture, but we should also be aware of its relationship with permanent tropes in folklore. That is why it is risky to use the most anecdotal statements as source material for cultural history. In this respect, the other two elements of the original stories identified above are more informative: the appearance and the attributes/characteristics of the character.

In the stories about Nils Knös, a set of specific attributes reoccur. Several informants mention his hat; partly because he set himself apart by wearing a top hat, but in particular because he had a red or red and white ribbon tied around the hat. In one version, he wore the hat as protection against the cold, indicating that he tied the ribbon under his chin. Despite the fact that the top hat with its red ribbon is mentioned on several independent occasions, one also finds an informant who claims that “Knös tended to walk around with a peaked cap, which could be folded down to cover his ears.” This may indicate that this aspect too has the characteristics of a popular legend.20 It is important to note that this is not just about how a red ribbon tied around a top hat differs from the contemporary norm, but how a different garment or behavioural attribute is necessary in the creation of a character, regardless of whether he actually displayed it or not.21 Other peculiarities mentioned in relation to Knös include that he chewed pipe tobacco, that he was very gluttonous and often ate far too much when invited into a farm, and also that he boasted how well he had been taken care of at the last place he visited when he arrived at a new farm. All of these characteristics serve the purpose of portraying Knös deviancy by highlighting how he broke conventions and rules of conduct. Nevertheless, these offenses were of such a kind that they were relatively acceptable. Even though they perhaps made some people upset at the time, they were easy to laugh at after the fact. These are eccentricities rather than signs of dangerous mental illness.22

It is hard to find any examples of characters traits that are a little bit too threatening or cross the line of what may be construed as acceptable. Per definition, the character is someone people remember with some degree of fondness. However, there is more mistrust surrounding recluses living on the outskirts of the social collective. Whereas the characters discussed have to some extent built their fame by actively interacting with their surroundings, the recluses display a more rejecting attitude. Here, we above all find so-called “wise people”, who often include women, but also men: hunters, foresters and widows/widowers.23 Among the records we find a few stories about people who lived in earth hovels and primitive cottages even up until the late nineteenth century, even though the information about these people does not seem to have been disseminated or been familiar to the same extent as information about those who had more regular contact with village life.

Contrary to Lynn Åkesson’s claim, the proportion of women among the character stories is not significantly smaller. The difference is rather found in the fact that the female characters are not legendary to the same extent, and also that particular female characters are rarely mentioned in a number of independent records. The female characters are also assigned their eccentricity based on other factors compared to their male counterparts. A story about “Lathing Hanna”, or the “Lathing Hag”, begins with a reference to her husband (who worked with lathing), and it is as if the story of the wife is excused by the presence of her husband. The eccentricity of the Lathing Hag is primarily based on her solitude, even if the informant recalls a series of anecdotes about her strange behaviour, such as splashing water on her husband’s coffin so that he would not come back to haunt her or that she refused to leave her house even though it was on fire. And even if the informant claims to have been a friend of the woman, he, just like the rest of the village, had a habit of using a rock to knock at the side of her house when he passed by, just so that she would come out on the landing and yell at him. In other words, despite the informant’s friendship with the Lathing Hag, it seems as if the collective was expected to have a certain attitude toward her, in spite of what the relationship looked like otherwise. This seems to have been an example of some kind of institutionalized bullying. In the informant’s story, the Lathing Hag also symbolizes the past. In addition to her being superstitious and having poor hygiene (the informant was invited to have some coffee with her, but saw how “a maggot was slithering on the coffee cup’s handle”), this woman is identified with the house in which she lived. When she finally and reluctantly was taken to the poorhouse, her house was demolished.24 This emphasis on an old way of living and the story of how the house was torn down, characterized by both nostalgia and fatalism, illustrates a recurring feature of the character stories – the association with the past.

A similar female character is “Filthy Boel” in the village of Igelösa between Lund and Eslöv. Her story is found in a record from the 1940s covering the years around the turn of the century. Boel lived in a small and decrepit cottage and “the old woman and the cottage were equally grey and equally filthy.” This short story mainly revolves around the filthy old woman and her house, in addition to her habit of standing on her landing commenting on the people passing by without ever addressing them directly. The contradictory relationship between her and the informant, and perhaps also the rest of the village, is expressed in the final sentence of the story: “In spite of her filth, the old woman was kind and friendly.”25 It seems as if these deviants were rarely seen in a hostile light. The story about “Filthy Boel” demonstrates how the female characters were often associated with their house, and also that these stories obviously consist of widows and housewives rather than hobos and vagabonds. The male characters could be both, but it is remarkable that also women on the outskirts of the local community are frequently referred to in ways that are very reminiscent of the stories about male characters, even though the term “character” seems to be more commonly used for men. Gender, in other words, was not the main criterion for eccentricity. Ethnicity and nationality are rarely mentioned in the material, except when there is mention of a hobo’s or character’s possible relationship with “tattare” (i.e., the travelling people).

The character was in other words not perceived as an explicit outsider. Just as stressed by Langford when it comes to the English stories about eccentrics, the characters were characterized by traits that were seen as typical and common for the local rural population, albeit taken to an extreme. That is why the reaction toward the character represented a mixture of local patriotism and embarrassment when acknowledging that the character’s rural and outdated characteristics were a reflection of the local community. More than anything else, what the character stories seem to reflect is thus change and the meeting between the modernized outside world and the local community that was still lagging behind. Modernity enters the records in two ways: how the informants talk about the character when meeting their academic interviewers or by just being aware of the fact that the written accounts of these interviewers are aimed at a newspaper. The fact that the character is described as different results in the informants, through their storytelling, distancing themselves from the provincialism embodied by the character. But this meeting is also seen in the content of the stories. The most popular story about Nils Knös is about how he one winter walked over to Copenhagen when the strait of Öresund froze. Here, he was met with great commotion and was carried around the city in a large basket. “I am a real human being. I am Swedish and my name is Nils Fredriksson Knös”, he is said to have told everyone he met.26

This story is obviously shaped by the oral transmission process, but the motif seems to have been seen as fascinating for his contemporaries and for his local community. A village idiot such as Nils Knös in the big city of Copenhagen, which is said to have been so alien to him that he felt compelled to assure the Danes that he was a real human being. This is an illustration of the “meeting with the other” as good as any. The fact that the Danes answered by carrying him around in a “bait basket” (i.e., basket made out of woodchips for transporting worms) in the same spirit shows how the people of southern Scania expected to be treated in the outside world – with a certain degree of mockery. The attitude lurking in the background of this anecdote serves to further highlight how the local collective was aware of the eccentric’s rural character and how this character was a reflection of themselves, but also that there was a risk involved in letting the local and the provincial be confronted by the modern and the urbane. In this case, Copenhagen both symbolizes the outside world as well as modernity. However, other types of characters made more forceful attempts to try to enter the new era.


The Innovative Character

A record from Perstorp about life in the town at around the turn of the century brings up a number of colourful characters. One of these is Anders Olsson, known as “Balzac” or “Balzak” and for a time employed at the Scanian Vinegar Factory in Perstorp. After the major strike of 1909, however, he was not re-hired, which led to him trying to build his very own vinegar factory “in miniature”. Not surprisingly, this enterprise was not a great success, but it is nevertheless said that Olsson managed to sell some lime treated with acetic acid to the large factory. The second aspect establishing Balzak’s eccentricity was that he owned a house that was possible to dissemble and move. The roof and walls of this house were snapped together by using hasps, which enabled Balzak to move his house when the lease on the land expired; something he is also said to have done.27 Another Perstorp character was “Coachman Otto”, Otto Nilsson, whose father had been a coachman at a large estate. Otto considered himself a “mechanical genius. He was busy designing a mysterious engine that was never finished. He talked about flying and many people thought that he was building a flying machine.”28

The reason why so many character stories have come out of Perstorp in particular may probably be linked to the existence of an industry and the associated male fellowship, in which several peculiar members were identified. Perhaps the industrial environment also came to influence the activities of the characters. Apart from his mechanical interest, Otto Nilsson was also interested in religion, and when reading the Bible, he highlighted passages on every page using an intricate colour system. The traditional rural attitude and the modern belief in the future were combined in this individual. Balzak is also an example of a classic character, as he walked the streets muttering to himself and lived secluded from others in a house he had built himself. However, adding his miniature factory and the walls that could be assembled modifies the picture of the rural outsider. The stories about characters around the turn of the century are to large extent about various kinds of eccentric inventors. Another alleged airplane designer was Johan Carlsson in the village of Ausås close to Helsingborg, who was a self-taught watchmaker by trade. After having seen air shows at Ljungbyhed, however, he got the idea that he should design his own airplane. According to the stories, he did manage to build an airplane fuselage, but never managed to get a hold of an engine that could get the airplane into the air. “Another time”, says an informant, “he had set up a propeller on a bicycle that he hung up in the doorway in his house, where he sat pedalling when I entered the house. Yes, the wind was blowing so hard that my hood blew off.”29 The stories about Carlsson thoroughly mock his ambitions, and they are based on the people around him rejecting his efforts as vain and pointless. But, as pointed out by German historian Rainer Emig, the eccentric often serves as “the testing ground for new ideas as well as the dumping ground for failed experiments.”30 The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century was a time full of more or less colourful inventors, and the question of whether they were to be perceived as geniuses or fools by their surroundings depended on whether or not their experiments were successful. Historian Victoria Carroll has studied the relationship between the English eccentric and the nineteenth century world of science, and she finds that amateur scientists who played on their lack of education could also be esteemed as some kind of prophetic natural talents.31

That Johan Carlsson’s technical ambitions were not just empty words is evidenced by the fact that several of his gadgets and “perpetual motion machines” have been preserved in the archive of the Helsingborg Museum, exhibiting a certain degree of technical knowledge. In the records, there are also individual stories about local technicians and inventors who were held in more esteem among the population by the fact that they were more successful. One example is Gustaf Häggblom from the province of Småland, who was the first in his village to own a radio. He had made it himself, and when he managed to tune into some music, his work was met with wonder from the people around him. Häggblom would have been a great inventor, says the informant, “had it not been for liquor.”32 That the characters do not end up as successful inventors is partially due to weaknesses such as drunkenness or a chaotic mind, but also due to the small-scale nature of their activities. Their creativity is never directed toward some grand business plans, and a project’s creative focus is entirely directed toward a specific aspect, whereas other crucial aspects are forgotten; as in the case of Carlsson’s airplane that was built but never received an engine.

So, are we to look upon the stories about eccentric inventors as a source for how the rural population in southern Sweden responded to modern phenomena? Yes and no. The notion of the inventor or scientist as eccentric and somewhat crazy can be traced back at least to the seventeenth century, when people carrying out mechanical experiments were met with confusion from people around them at the same time as philosophical and technological innovations became more and more socially accepted.33 That local eccentrics are seen as depraved or failed innovators is not, in other words, a new phenomenon, nor is it one exclusive to the time around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the same time, the perception of characters who are interested in technology is influenced by its time and the complex attitude with regard to technological progress found in local communities at the turn of the century. At this time, the perception of modernity is less visible in the rural culture than in the urban and literary cultures; both with regard to contemporary sources, but also how these are treated by historians. Studies that have addressed the meeting between modernity and the popular rural culture show an assimilation process rather than a conflict.

Ethnological research has for a long time argued for incorporating modern forms and expressions that emerged during the twentieth century into the concept of “folklore”. American Richard Dorson was ground-breaking in his claim how the established set of motives and perceptions of folk culture were reshaped in order to fit into a modern urban context.34 A similar attitude has been introduced in Swedish research by scholars such as Bengt af Klintberg. Following this, ethnology now emphasizes a symbiosis in folk culture between continuity and change, the traditional and the modern. However, this has rarely resulted in scholars focusing on the contexts in which the traditional and the modern are confronted with one another. One exception is Göran Sjögård’s study on how the introduction of electricity in southern Sweden was initially included in the local popular belief system and attributed magical properties.35 British and American studies have studied popular belief systems and superstition within different industrial professions, such as miners and oil drillers.36 The reactions concerning other technological innovations, such as airplanes and moving pictures, also show how they were made understandable through established magical and supernatural perceptions, but also how this sense of wonder was frequently exaggerated in contemporary reports and was seen as a sign of the stupidity of the rural population.37

In this context, the inventing characters adopt a liminal position. Their projects are often relatively technologically advanced, but are at times also based on a superficial view of the technology they seek to develop. If building an airplane, for example, they do not find out what kind of propulsion is used or how airplanes are designed; instead they build a fuselage and then start to look for an engine. However, the invention activities carried out by the characters are naturally shaped by the perception of their surroundings, which is characterized by a certain degree of mockery. At the same time as the characters represent something old-fashioned and rural that the people around them want to be associated with, these same people are on the side of modernity when they laugh at how the characters hopelessly attempt to catch up with the current times. Keeping up with your time is a marker of status, in spite of the talk about old traditions. A similar attitude is noticeable in the stories about Nils Knös in Copenhagen. The conflict between a nostalgic attitude and one welcoming modernity found in the stories may be seen as a sign of a conflict in the rural culture around the turn of the century. This conflict is based on confusion or uncertainty as to how people should relate to change and modernity, and it is portrayed in the complex narrative identity expressed in the folklore records. At its core, this identity is ambivalent, as the informant, as well as the cultural context from which he or she speaks, does not know how to relate to change.

But why this ambivalence? Is it a sign of how the social changes of the time actively affect the local community or rather a sign of the limited and weak impact of these changes on these communities? To a large extent, the answer to this question depends on whether the person attempting to answer it is a historian or an ethnologist. The latter would probably emphasize continuity and argue that the conflict, or rather the productive interaction, between tradition and innovation is a recurring feature of folk culture. Without directly contradicting this notion, the historian would bring up the time-specific aspects – that the modernizing forces of the time are still sufficiently strong and comprehensive that even the most unchanged rural areas are unable to avoid being affected or having to adopt a position.

However, it is only possible to see the nature of the rural culture clearly when it is seen in relation to the corresponding oral cultural expressions in towns and cities. Rural characters and the related anecdotes are primarily seen as rural phenomena, but an overview of the existing material shows that this is clearly not the case. The question is whether the character stories are dependent on the degree of urbanity in their social collective of origin. We end this study by looking at characters in different towns cities and by comparing the stories found in the small towns with those found in the medium-sized city (in this case, Malmö). We finally take a short trip to Stockholm to study corresponding stories in the context of a big city.


The Nature of Eccentricity in the Industrial Town

In the records from the Scanian towns, you sometimes come across characters who are also discussed in rural areas. Nils Knös, for instance, appears in an account from the neighbourhood of Kirseberg in Malmö, as do other characters who spent time in both the city and in the countryside.38 Several of the characters, in particular those from small towns, are similar to the rural characters in terms of nature and roles. This may be an indication of how the small Scanian towns at this time tended to be characterized by what was rural rather than what was urban. A number of accounts from late nineteenth century Ystad contain a permanent set of characters who illustrate the responses of the outside world with regard to various types of abnormal behaviours. The character who received the most attention went by the nickname of Biddingen, as he originated from the village of Beddinge. Biddingen’s real name was Gustav Olsson and he was said to have been a slaughterer’s assistant before he became one of the best-known drunkards in town, as well as allegedly the first person to be imprisoned in Ystad’s newly built prison after having been convicted of drunkenness. “He used to say that he was the one who inaugurated the prison in Ystad.”39

The characters in Ystad mainly consisted of drunkards or beggars who were frequently seen on the streets and formed a part the townscape.40 However, the stories from Ystad also contain a few female characters. The one who received the most attention appears to have been the so-called “Cat Lady”. Mrs. Mellbom, her real name, had been given this moniker for having a large number of cats in her house. One record claims that she had once been an actress who was booed off the stage. As an Ystad character, she was a permanent victim of boys who played in the street and whistled after her as she walked by.41 Another woman also seems to have been subjected to the same kind of treatment. According to an account, her name was Karolina Lundquist but was commonly referred to as the Flea. The mythology surrounding her conjures up an image of a tragic fate. She was the daughter of a wealthy glove maker, but “she was seduced and had a child. The scandal was absolute and she was pushed out of society.” The records tell the story of a woman who had resorted to drinking and walking around town whilst begging.42 It may seem as if the portrayals of the Flea and the Cat Lady correspond at times; at least when taking into account how they both seem to have been the victims of children’s scorn and persecution. But this relationship between local characters and children playing in the street is also noticeable in other records, and it seems to be a recurring feature in stories about urban characters.43

It is here clear how the male and female alcoholics are treated differently. The male drunks are depicted with humour and are perceived as amusing. There is an undertone in the stories suggesting that they represent a kind of freedom or nonconformity that is admired, just like in the stories about other characters. The female alcoholics, on the other hand, are looked upon more critically. Both the Cat Lady and the Flea are essentially tragic figures, and they are also depicted as such. It is not as easy to ignore the shame behind their unfortunate fates as when it comes to the fates of the men. As we have seen above, when it comes to characters it is more common to highlight the more comic or intentionally nonconformist characteristics of these individuals rather than any possible tragic circumstances, even if this dimension is not invisible. There are a number of stories from Kristianstad about a man called the Shoemaker of Jerusalem, whose alleged traits of being a wanderer and eccentric were said to be the result of an unfortunate romantic affair in his youth, when he was not granted permission to marry the daughter of a man belonging to the upper echelons of society. At the same time, the stories about this man do not lack the usual comic features. He wore a characteristic straw hat, wanted to be addressed as “his majesty” and could often be seen swimming in the Helge River.44 Swedish literature professor and writer Fredrik Böök devotes an entire chapter to him in one of his accounts of growing up in Kristianstad. However, he does not mention any possible tragic background. Instead, the account is more idealized, depicting the Shoemaker of Jerusalem as a happy and ascetic philosopher.45 For some reason, it seems easier to reshape the male characters into ideals or people to be ridiculed compared to the female characters, whose exclusion and social cases are harder to ignore. At the same time, the separation is not absolute, and it seems as if the creation of such stories took place in a field of tension between what was situation-bound, on the one hand, and fixed perceptions concerning social categories, on the other.

In an article on Martin Piniak, a homeless man of local fame in a 1970s Chicago neighbourhood, ethnologist Elena Bradunas points out how the oral variety of stories surrounding him included two different explanations with regard to his fate. According to one explanation, Piniak is depicted as an intentional dissident who had quit his job when income tax was instituted and who had never worked since. According to the second explanation, he was the victim of a tragedy revolving around his girlfriend having died in a car accident. Bradunas argues that the various myths surrounding Piniak acted as an intermediary link between the present norms and his deviancy, resulting in him being seen more as dissident rather than a deviant, thus being greeted with respect in the neighbourhood.46 The social role of the deviant therefore seems quite clear: as there are always people in social life who in some way end up on the outside, it is somehow easier for the surrounding community to develop strategies for processing and accepting their presence than trying to ignore or getting annoyed by them. Meanwhile, the deviants serve a function as negating reflections of the self-identity of the people around them; a self-identity that involves following norms. However, Bradunas does not discuss how this processing is dependent on the urban factor or social categories such as gender and ethnicity.

The records about characters from small Scanian towns, such as Ystad, Simrishamn, Trelleborg and Lund, often provide lists of several names that are only accompanied by a short description. It seems as if the epithet “character” was frequently used for all individuals who were regularly seen in town, which may explain why so many of them were known based on their professional role. A record from Simrishamn mentions a mailman, a waiter, a meat carrier and the local laundresses as the town’s characters.47 Certain professional groups are more associated with the perception of characters than others. Executioner’s assistants were frequently named in relation to characters, as were junk men, street sweepers and others with low-status occupations. It is interesting to note that even if the town character in question is not involved in any established occupation, he or she usually offers some kind of service. The beggars sell something symbolic in exchange for receiving charity. The Cat Lady, for instance, walked around selling baptismal caps she had made herself.48

The stories about late nineteenth century Malmö follow this pattern. These mention “Lars in the doorway”, who lived in a cottage by the canal and who dried people’s laundry, an old man called “Otta”, who washed gloves and Nilsson on Norra Långgatan, who made candles and was called the “Candle Maker”.49 Nevertheless, the person who is the most prominent among the old Malmö characters is “Karl Lollare” (or “Cal Lollare” or “Karl Lållare”); a junk man who walked around in the city in the 1880s and, according to himself, was “famous for his humorous and unusual ways of buying rags and bones in the farms.”50 He is said to have had a peculiar walk, which earned him his nickname, and he announced his arrival by blowing a wooden flute he had made himself.51 One of the accounts concerning him is a good illustration of the general attitude with regard to characters: “He was basically a good-natured man and never wanted to cause anyone else any harm. And as a character, he was harmless. What was original about his person primarily consisted of the dishevelled way he dressed, his lack of cleanliness and his way of declaring out loud what he wanted to buy.”52

None of the accounts provide Karl Lollare’s real name or date of birth or death. However, a particularly detailed description says that he had experienced the same fate as the Shoemaker of Jerusalem and the Flea: he had once been a “normal person”, but had experienced a romantic tragedy, which first led to him becoming an alcoholic followed by being committed to the local workhouse. The independent way of life he subsequently came to enjoy after having managed to leave the workhouse represents something of a rebellious approach vis-à-vis the social institutions. This approach is only implied and it is not explicitly political. It may, however, be compared to the attitude permeating other character stories, which eagerly defends the peculiarities of the character in relation to society’s normalizing demands. Karl Lollare’s fame and symbolic value were significant enough that he would have a song written about him posthumously. The lyrics were written by socialist author Henrik Mena, famous for his song “Arbetets söner [The Sons of Labor]” and for writing the Swedish lyrics to the “Internationale”. The song about Karl Lollare was published in 1915 in Menander’s book Socialistiska sånger och dikter [Socialist Songs and Poems] and is titled “Karl Lållares eftermäle [Karl Lållare’s Legacy]”. The lyrics describe how the narrator hears someone singing a mocking rhyme about Karl Lollare while he enters the cemetery. He asks the gravedigger to show him Karl Lollare’s grave, but the gravedigger refuses to do so by saying: “That grave is forgotten.” The song ends with a melancholic meditation on how “Lållare”, someone familiar to everyone when he was alive, is now forgotten in death.53 Menander’s lyrics are not explicitly political, even though the song’s inclusion in this volume and the short reflection on how the junk man is now forgotten are clearly politically motivated. The rhyme heard by the narrator at the beginning of the song, which is also quoted in the song as well as in one of the folklore records about Karl Lollare, appears to have been a real rhyme existing at the time:


Karl Lållare went to heaven,

with rags and bones, he fell on his behind again,

with rags and bones.54


This rhyme is included in a story about how Karl Lollare was subjected to children making fun of him. When Lollare left his cart on the street, they turned it upside down so that all of his rags fell out. This relationship is recognized from stories about other urban characters; however, the testimonies in relation to this relationship are contradictory. According to some informants, the rhyme arose as words to the melody Lollare used to play on his flute, which suggests a more harmonious relationship between him and the children. In general, the stories about Karl Lollare provide a picture of a relationship characterized by equal parts disgust and mutual respect. Lollare’s clothing, lack of hygiene, walk, pushy behaviour and, not least, low-status occupation were all means for letting the informant demonstrate his or her distance to him. The tenderness or nostalgia that is subsequently linked to him may very well be a way of toning down this rejection. However, at the end of the day, these stories are not all that different from the stories about rural characters. The form is the same, as is the humour, and the urban characters also become the protagonists in anecdotes filled with dialectal humour. Karl Lollare once brusquely entered a house through a kitchen door in search for goods to purchase.


”Have any bones today?” he asked.

”No, not today”, the woman in the kitchen replied.

”That’s bad. What the hell do you use for walking?”55

(In Swedish, the same word – ben – is used for both bones and legs.)


But to really study the impact of urbanity on the character stories, we need to look at the situation in larger cities. Ystad and Kristianstad were important trading towns at the time, but were still not sufficiently cut off from the surrounding agricultural society in order to be considered truly urban areas. It is not even possible to say that Malmö had reached this position, as Malmö had yet to experience the great expansion that would take place in the twentieth century. That is why I now leave my focus on Scania in order to carry out a comparison on stories from Stockholm dealing with the same time. Unfortunately, the source material is here limited, but there is a collection of records collected by Carl-Herman Tillhagen from 1939 onwards, which contains some accounts of the characters who lived in Stockholm. Most stories concern a homeless woman who went by the nickname of “Miss Rags”. She is said to have walked around with all of her belongings strapped to her large coat: pans, bottles, a lamp and so on. The stories vary as to whether she lived in a hut, a hole in the ground or just under an oak tree. This oak tree is sometimes located in Lill-Jansskogen, sometimes on the island of Djurgården, sometimes at Värtavägen. Just like other urban characters we have encountered, she never stooped to begging, instead choosing to sell pins, which she would then charge exorbitant sums of money for. Several stories also mention that there were always children running after her.56

There are thus a number of striking similarities between the portrayal of Miss Rags and the portrayal of urban characters in Scania. One record also claims that she was “deceived in love” when she was young and once told the informant: “Never marry, Miss, because all men are nothing but Turks and barbarians.”

Miss Rags is the subject of a pamphlet published in 1896, in which her real name is said to be Augusta Dorotea Eklund, the daughter of a butler and a chambermaid of Countess de Fleur on Drottinggatan. The story about her broken heart is here developed into a melodramatic vignette in which the young and beautiful Augusta Dorotea is seduced by a young count, who then abandons her and leaves the country to marry another woman. As a result, Augusta Dorotea loses her mind. However, it is not explained how she then turns into the beggar woman described in the introduction of this text in a way that is similar to the accounts in the folklore records. This pamphlet is an interesting testimony on contemporary society’s view on urban characters and how they could be used. In the text, Miss Rags is on several occasions referred to as a “character”, and she is said to already be a thing of the past. The tragic fate of the character here takes centre stage. In the introductory part, we get a description of her tattered and filthy appearance and the ever-present mob of street kids following her every step. The following description of her, however, is more akin to the sensationalist depictions of urban poverty common at the time than to some kind of picturesque rural comedy.57

However, the collected oral folklore memories of Miss Rags are different from the literary pamphlet. These are more similar in tone and form to the funny anecdotes about local characters in Scania. Even though the story’s ingredients remain the same, and there is a measure of sympathy in the storytelling, the story here becomes more humorous or light-hearted in nature. The unreasonably expensive pins and the mischievous antics of the street boys play a more important role than the young woman’s lost innocence and humiliation on the streets of Stockholm. Hence, the apparent difference not only seems to be a difference between different types of literature, but also a difference between oral and “popular” stylistic devices, on the one hand, and written and literary stylistic devices, on the other. The stories in Tillhagen’s collection are naturally altered as they are written down, but the subject matters and perspectives that are brought up reflect those that form the foundation of the oral stories.

Among the array of Stockholm characters, another wandering woman is mentioned at the turn of the century mention, who went by the name of “Skinny Madam”. She was also the victim of being betrayed by a man, only to lose her mind and later walk the streets “as a female shoemaker of Jerusalem.”58 Another character frequently referred to in the material is “Kalle Left”; a more comical character, whose eccentricity was said to consist of him always walking while “looking left”. Another account describes him as “the strange left-leaning figure with the look of an actor and an ever-smiling face.”59 Kalle Left seems to have been someone who was frequently seen on the city streets and who stood out due to his peculiar behaviour. Stockholm had an affinity for characters who possessed several similarities with not only the wandering beggar character in the small towns of Scania, but also with the rural characters. More pronounced urban characters were found in relation to specific urban institutions. In Tillhagen’s collection of accounts, for instance, we find recollections from the restaurant and café life of the late nineteenth century. An account from a former waiter at the Berns restaurant contains a list of the “Berns characters” who frequented this establishment in the 1890s. Here, a certain J. A. Scheele is mentioned, who visited Berns on a daily basis during the 1890s, and whose occupation was unknown to the staff, but who was never sober when he arrived “and even less so when he left.” The cigar trader Jacobson “always presided in the corner sofa next to the [cigar] store”, and “a German by the name of Papst” always came to drink pilsner instead of ale, as it was “easier to piss out.”60

The anecdotes concerning permanent students in Swedish university towns are similar to these stories. The book Våra öfverliggare [Our Permanent Students] from 1886 is a collection of stories about funny individuals from Uppsala. The book’s author, Oscar Svahn, also attempts to explain the concept of “permanent students” and the various kinds that exist. The ambiguous perspective of the discussion is similar to statements concerning characters. As Svahn argues, if a permanent student is only defined as someone studying at a university without graduating, then both the king and author Viktor Rydberg may be considered permanent students. In the end, he describes permanent students as narrow-minded figures, “as if their soul at some point happened to be put in a bottle and then, out of mischief, the opening was plugged, so that nothing else could enter or leave.”61 This depiction of a fundamentally unchangeable person is in many ways similar to the depiction of local characters.

The Berns characters and the permanent students represent a type of character that both resembles and differs from the rural and street characters. They come from spheres characterized by academic or bourgeois lifestyles and they are linked to institutions that differ from the village and neighbourhood collectives in terms of class and social environment. The interactions that have shaped these stories are based on other cultural and behavioural pre-understandings. At the same time, both characters and permanent students are portrayed as admirable but strange individuals, who are tied to the past and unchangeable and with a comic touch that frequently borders on the vulgar. These deviants are figures created in different spheres. Nevertheless, it would be an exaggeration to classify them according to two completely different cultures – one rural and “popular”, the other urban and academic. The similarities when it comes to humour are too noticeable to be ignored. This is clearly visible in cartoons found in contemporary popular culture, in particular represented by artist and writer Albert Engström’s “Kolingen”; a caricature of the Stockholm character with obvious rural features.


Final Discussion

A short article in an old issue of the Scanian local history magazine Byahornet [The Village Horn] begins with a train of thought that concisely summarizes the perspective that seems to characterize the attitude toward rural characters. The passage is written in the local dialect:


When you think hard, it is actually quite difficult to tell whether someone is wise or loopy. There is no real scale for us to use. We simply believe that if someone does something we or other normal people would not do, then he is a little bit nuts. But what do we know about that? He might think the same about us.62


Here we see the relativizing perspective as to what is considered normal or rational that frequently permeates the character stories. The ambivalence with regard to the character is based on the possibility that perhaps he or she is not the crazy one, perhaps we are. Meanwhile, a clear distinction is made between “we and other normal people”, on the one hand, and the person doing something we would not do, on the other. The peculiarities or actions that set the character apart are of the kind that is generally defined as “loopy”, and the initial impression of this person is that he or she is “a little bit nuts”. This maxim is not unique; not for its time nor for Swedish local literature. Reminding ourselves that the fool is secretly laughing at us while we are laughing at him is a stylistic device that has been in use for a long time. The fool as a much needed sarcastic or subversive commentator on the hubris or conceit of his surroundings may be found in both folklore and in older literature, in particular in Shakespeare.63

This ambivalent attitude thus constitutes a part of the core of the character stories. Against the background of the modernization processes at the turn of the century discussed in the introduction of this article, we may see how the ambivalence concerning the character could be used for providing an outlet for people’s ambivalence concerning the modern. However, as mentioned above, the people defined as characters represent a highly heterogeneous group. Åkesson accepts this, but ultimately wants to classify the characters as a specific type of individuals who are different from hobos or village idiots. She argues that they “are characterized as people who have had the strength and courage to create their own life patterns, who have the courage to be themselves and bring colour to life as large personalities.”64 This somewhat idealized approach results in Åkesson dismissing the folklore records as a source; probably due to the fact that the characters included in these represent a plethora of different types of outsiders that do not correspond to her narrow view of what a character should look like. A study of the records rather indicates that the character only exists in the stories. The individuals behind the stories were perhaps referred to as characters in their time and by the people around them, and perhaps people looked upon them with a certain measure of respect, but they may just as well have been simply peculiar or odd people who are seen in a nostalgic light when they are remembered by the people around them at a later stage. From a historical perspective, this “nostalgia process” is what is interesting.

The most tangible aspect noticed in a study on characters is precisely the process that is initiated in the memory of the people around the individual who is the object of these memories. In this process, it is hard to distinguish between the impressions that are the result of a direct response to the interaction with the individual and the impressions that were formed later, which may perhaps to a higher degree be dependent on the oral transmission of these stories. In this study, I have prioritized statements that were made close to the character’s own time. However, this is at the same time a period that seems to have established a perception among people that the old world was on its way out and that a new world was about to take over. The characters thereby get to represent the old times as well as a world that is now seen as rural and outdated. The character is characterized by his or her deep roots in his or her local environment, by withdrawing from the outside world, by his or her use of the local dialect and by his or her inability to adapt to innovations. At the same time, several legendary characters were some sort of inventors; men (in particular) who, in the spirit of industrialism and modernity, built airplanes, engines or factories. Nevertheless, their fame is entirely based on their failures, and the people around them respond to their inventiveness with amusement and scepticism rather than wonder and admiration, which leads to the character inventing meaningless or failed gadgets in fact highlighting his or her outdated and rural nature. In the stories, the characters thus become useful tools for dealing with a simultaneous hesitance and acceptance with regard to the modern, as well as for distancing oneself from the stationary while maintaining a local patriotic identity. There has not been space in this study for a longer discussion on the role in of the character in local society in pre-modern and late modern times. Based on the observations made here, it is nevertheless interesting to speculate as to the possible results of such a study. In a comparison to studies on social categories and deviant groups in pre-modern and medieval local society, it is not impossible to conclude that a culture similar to the modern character culture in fact existed. However, the way in which it has been presented here – in addition to the eccentricity culture present in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England – seems to indicate that a distinctive and specific character culture emerged in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is difficult to say whether this process took place later in Sweden or if its previous invisibility is simply a matter of a lack of source material, but one could say that both its growth and its decline in the first half of the twentieth century are linked to modern factors; initially as a nostalgic reaction to the beginning of social changes, and then as a sign of a reshaping of the local culture, from folk culture to mass culture. Characters and character stories are not entirely alien in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, but they look different. There was no room for the anachronistic character in the creation of the modern welfare state of Sweden. Nevertheless, other forms of nonconformity, more akin to urban eccentricity, have developed. Likewise, one may assume that the character culture that emerged at the beginning of the modern era looked different from the ways in which people identified and discussed deviant individuals in pre-modern times. Peter Burke, for instance, has argued that early modern peasant society was generally extremely intolerant when it came to social deviancy.65

The research carried out on the fool or the early modern attitude toward witches indicates that pre-modern society, more characterized by permanent roles and less social mobility than modern society, categorized social deviancy and nonconformity into clearly defined categories, such as fool, joker, hermit or beggar.66 Furthermore, the institutions for helping the poor that several of the above-mentioned characters came into contact with were to some extent missing earlier.67 The modern era studied here was not only more individualistic, meaning that the individual variations exhibited by the deviants could influence the public perception to a higher extent, but also more heterogeneous due to the fact that the permanent roles of the past no longer existed. Deviants who in the pre-modern era would have been relegated to either the group of the wise or the group of the idiots were now assigned a public persona, which took the individual’s specific attributes and traits into account to a larger extent, even though urban characters always had to become a part of the local economy. Thus, there was never just one type of character. The term itself (original in Sweden) indicated diversity. However, the categorization of characters is linked to a transitional period in the relationship between collectivism and individualism. If there has been a decline in the dissemination of character stories, this is likely to be linked to the decline in collectivism during the twentieth century. Danish historian Poul Duedahl links the post-modern existence, where no one really wants to be normal and where everyone wants to create his or her own exclusive and nonconformist identity, to the decline of the notion of a social community seen in the post-war era.68 Wide-ranging common values and ideals are replaced by extreme individualism. Miranda Gill argues that the interest in eccentricity in the nineteenth century was linked to the individualism of bourgeois culture. Is it possible to explain the rural character culture in the same way? Based on the observations made in this study, one could argue that individualism to a large degree also existed in the outdated countryside that is frequently seen as more collectivistic. Nevertheless, I think that an overly narrow focus on the dichotomy between collectivism and individualism is simplistic. A comparison between this study and other studies on the role of eccentricity in nineteenth century culture instead suggests that social life in both town and country consisted of complex negotiations between norms and nonconformity, where deviant individuals were frequently accepted for their wilfulness even if they did not participate in the rest of the community. The character served a purpose in the collective narrative identity, as he or she poured new life into this identity when it risked being seen as too correct and boring. In this way, the possible subversive intentions of the character were pacified, while the collective identity maintained its balance between conformity and defiance.

On one level, it is possible to compare the English aristocratic eccentrics with the local characters from southern Sweden in their role as archetypal contrasts to a collective identity. On another level, however, they reflect completely different cultures – one characterized by self-discipline and dignity, the other by calling it as you see it in relation to what is ugly and unclean in life, frequently using a coarse and vulgar type of humour. English eccentrics tended to preserve a core of good behaviour in their deviancy. For instance, Lord Moira at the end of the eighteenth century was known to suffer from extreme shyness and being unable to speak in public, but he was always polite and well-mannered.69 In contrast to these figures, we have the “Slimminge Suitor”, who undressed in public, the Stockholm beggar “Nall-Fia”, who used her own urine to wash herself, “Filthy Thomas” in Malmö who also walked around naked in town when he was not wearing a bag or a carpet, or “Häger the Hussar” in Norra Rörum who had ”large and deep scars on his cheeks from knife cuts” and who ranted and cursed as he walked between farms selling wicker baskets.70

The logic of the character stories is not primarily individualistic in nature. The attention given to these stories serves as an illustration as to how the local community took notice of distinctive and admirable individuals, but the purpose of these stories was not to emphasize the diversity of the village. The detectable ambivalence of these stories instead reflects the narrator’s or developed story’s ambivalence with regard to change. Whatever role the character played during his or her lifetime, he or she is assigned the role of a symbol of the past and the outdated; both in terms of characteristics, way of life and in his or her lack of personal hygiene, but also in the coarse dialectal rural comedy forming the foundation of these anecdotes. Herein lies the inherent defiance in nineteenth century narrative identities. In the historiography of the nineteenth century, the vulgarity that was constantly lurking underneath the surface is often forgotten. It was not even all that far off in the sophisticated salons and the urban entertainment settings. Sweden remained a rural society far into the twentieth century.


“I am a real human being”: Local Characters in Late Nineteenth Century Sweden

This article sets out to study the ways in which reactions and adaptations to modernity and social change among non-elite communities in late nineteenth century Sweden are visible in contemporary attitudes to social deviants and nonconformists. In Swedish provincial cultures, orally transmitted stories about local characters played a significant part in regional identity formation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Swedish local characters, commonly termed original in Swedish, and the oral traditions related to them have much in common with stories about local characters in other countries, as well as the interest in “eccentrics” in the urban cultures of the early nineteenth century, as studied by Miranda Gill and James Gregory. The present study makes use of stories held in a folklore archive in the south of Sweden that were collected in the early twentieth century, and which shed light on the mental and identity processes inherent in rural and urban social communities in the late nineteenth century. By looking at the personal characteristics identified by the community and how the anecdotes took shape, it is possible to conclude that deviants were instrumental in creating local identities. However, they should not be thought of as mere contrasts to a normal identity, but rather as active constituents in the constant renegotiation of collective identities in response to the encroaching modernity. The interest in local characters was therefore not a sign of growing individualism, but instead a sign of ambivalence concerning social change. The character – in his or her old-fashioned way of life, general uncleanliness and uncouth language – was made to represent the outdated and could be used as a scapegoat when explaining the dated ways of the village, but also as a mascot, asserting a certain pride in a local identity. However, when comparing the local characters in Swedish towns and cities with their rural counterparts, it becomes clear that the coarse and dialectal mentality and humour of the provincial stories thrive in the urban context too. This is an indication that even at the turn of the twentieth century, despite modernization processes, local popular cultures in Sweden in both town and country were still permeated by pre-modern rural sentiments; a point that has hitherto been neglected in the overly teleological depiction of the history of the modern West.


Keywords: local characters, eccentricity, modernity, folklore, rural culture




1.   The research carried out for this article was made possible through generous contributions from Ebbe Kocks stiftelse, Gyllenstiernska Krapperupsstiftelsen and Helge Ax:son Johnsons stiftelse.

2.   LUF 7590. (In the following references to the folklore archive in Lund, the accepted abbreviation of LUF will be used together with the reference number of the respective record.)

3.   The Slimminge Suitor is mentioned in Slimminge, Wemmenhög District, Malmöhus County. En vandring i tid och rum, part 1, Skurup 1999, p. 46–47; and Egon Prahl, Vemmenhögs härad. Hågkomster, intryck och hörsägner om gammalt och nytt i ett sydskånskt härad, Trelleborg 1965, p. 95–99.

4.   Lynn Åkesson, De ovanligas betydelse, Stockholm 1991, p. 60–62, 166–167. Åkesson’s critique of the labelling theory is influenced by Bengt-Erik Borgström, “Outsiders Within: The Management of Mental Deviance in a North Swedish Community”, Ethnos 1974:39, p. 63–82.

5.   Diane Tye, Local Characters and the Community: A Case Study of Tradition and Individual Nonconformity in the Maritimes, University of Newfoundland 1988.

6.   Åkesson 1991, p. 166.

7.   Michel Foucault, Abnormal. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974–1975, London 2003. Regarding the concretization of social categories, also see Dror Wahrman, The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England, New Haven 2004. Similar ideas are found in Histories of the Normal and the Abnormal: Social and Cultural Histories of Norms and Normativity, Waltraud Ernst (ed.), New York 2006.

8.   Paul Langford, Englishness Identified: Manners and Character 1650–1850, Oxford 2000, p. 303–312.

9.   James Gregory, “‘Local Characters’: Eccentricity and the North-East in the Nineteenth Century”, Northern History 2005:42, p. 164–187; James Gregory, “Eccentric Biography and the Victorians”, Biography 2007:30, p. 342–376.

10. Miranda Gill, Eccentricity and the Cultural Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Paris, Oxford 2009, p. 274–276.

11. Sandra Stahl, “The Local-Character Anecdote”, Genre 1975: 8, p. 283–302; Diane Tye, “Local Character Anecdotes: A Nova Scotia Case Study”, Western Folklore 1989:48, p. 181–199.

12. Margaret R. Somers, “The Narrative Constitution of Identity: A Relational and Network Approach”, Theory and Society 1994: 23, p. 605–649. Also see Douglas Ezzy, “Theorizing Narrative Identity: Symbolic Interactionism and Hermeneutics”, The Sociological Quarterly 1998:39, p. 239–252.

13. The decades around 1900 represent the time period in focus. The oldest experiences may be dated back to the 1870s and 1880s and the most recent to the 1910s.

14. Ingemar Ingers, “Historier om Nils Knös från Mellan-Grevie”, Säasä. Skånsk samling 1956:14, p. 36–40.

15. See Ingers 1956:14.

16. Robert Ek, Skånska bygdeoriginal och bygdehistorier. Allmogeberättelser från förra århundradets senare del, Malmö 1932, p. 34–37.

17. See, for instance, LUF 7464, 204, 2713.

18. LUF 7599.

19. LUF 1891.

20. LUF 7602.

21. Also see records on “Gubben Västergren” [Old Man Västergren], LUF 2404 and glazier Andersson LUF 7960.

22. Anyone looking for people similar to rural eccentrics in the patient records of mental hospitals at this time usually does so in vain. The deviancy of these eccentrics was never of a nature requiring desperate measures such as having them committed. In the patient records from St. Lars in Lund from the late nineteenth century, for example, we find people who are covered by a completely different terminology, and whose stories are far more tragic and whose misfortune is frequently the result of a collision between the individual’s neurotic or psychotic condition and the inability of the surrounding family or employer to deal with the problem.

23. See, for instance, LUF 466, 467, 7772, 8434, 12789.

24. LUF 13251.

25. LUF 9918.

26. LUF 7599.

27. LUF 10924. On Balzak, also see Arvid Persson, Till flydda tider, Kristianstad 1976, p. 64–66. Here, we also find a photograph said to depict the house that could be disassembled.

28. LUF 10924.

29. LUF 14397.

30. Rainer Emig, “Eccentricity Begins at Home: Carlyle’s Centrality in Victorian Thought”, Textual Practice 2003:17, p. 379–390.

31. Victoria Carroll, Science and Eccentricity: Collecting, Writing and Performing Science for Early Nineteenth-Century Audiences, London 2008.

32. LUF 6602.

33. Alexander Keller, “Mathematics, Mechanics and the Origins of the Culture of Mechanical Invention”, Minerva 1985:23, p. 348–361; William H. Sherman, “Patents and Prisons: Simon Sturtevant and the Death of the Renaissance Inventor”, Huntington Library Quarterly 2009:72, p. 239–256.

34. Giovanna P. Del Negro, The Passeggiata and Popular Culture in an Italian Town: Folklore and the Performance of Modernity, Quebec 2004, p. 44–45.

35. Göran Sjögård, “Folkliga uppfattningar kring elektricitet. En studie om människans möte med en ny teknik”, in Folktro i Skåne, Jochum Stattin (ed.), Kristianstad 1991.

36. Richard M. Dorson, “Introduction”, Folklore in the Modern World, Richard M. Dorson (ed.), Haag 1978.

37. David Lance, “Folklore of Aviation”, The RUSI Journal 1976:121, p. 62–68; Stephen Bottomore, “The Panicking Audience? Early Cinema and the ‘Train Effect’”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 1999:19, p. 177–216.

38. LUF 8248.

39. LUF 8965.

40. See LUF 8965, 9128, 9132, 9133.

41. LUF 8965, 9126, 9134.

42. LUF 9125, 9132.

43. See, for example, the story of how the children in Malmö ran after “‘Svarta Sara’, en toka” [‘Black Sara’, a crazy woman], LUF 8192.

44. LUF 13064, 13065.

45. Fredrik Böök, Leksaker och reliker, Stockholm 1933, p. 45–58.

46. Elena Bradunas, “An Urban Hermit”, Indiana Folklore 1977:10, p. 159–163.

47. LUF 7629.

48. LUF 8965.

49. LUF 8238.

50. LUF 8167. Also see 8168, 8188.

51. LUF 8230.

52. LUF 8167.

53. Henrik Menander, Socialistiska sånger och dikter, Malmö 1915, p. 89–91.

54. LUF 8230.

55. LUF 8167.

56. Carl-Herman Tillhagen, Stockholms folkminnen, unpublished manuscript, Archive of the Nordic Museum, volume 1, p. 14–16; volume 2, p. 15–16.

57. “Håkan”, “Trasfröken”, En bild ur storstadslifvet, Stockholm 1896.

58. “Stockholm intime. Våra gatuoriginal”, Tidningen Kalmar, February 7, 1910.

59. Ibid.

60. Stockholms folkminnen, volume 8.

61. Thord Bonde (pseudonym for Oscar Svahn), Våra Öfverliggare. Akademiska studier, Stockholm 1886, p. 8. On permanent students in Lund, see Sven G. Andersson, Skämtare från Lund och annorstädes, Lund 1986, p. 7–36.

62. Lennart Kjellgren, “Pelle oppfinnoren”, Byahornet 1947:6, p. 1220–1221.

63. Enid Welsford, The Fool, His Social and Literary History, Gloucester, Mass., 1966, p. 76–112; Tim Prentki, The Fool in European Theatre: Stages of Folly, p. 13, 38; Ralph Lerner, Playing the Fool: Subversive Laughter in Troubled Times, Chicago 2009, p. 2.

64. Åkesson 1991, p. 19.

65. Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, Farnham 2009, p. 225.

66. On this topic, see for instance, Främlingar – ett historiskt perspektiv, Anders Florén & Åsa Karlsson (ed.), Uppsala 1998; Sandra Billington, A Social History of the Fool, Brighton 1984, p. 32–36.

67. See Robert Jütte, Poverty and Deviance in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge 1994.

68. Poul Duedahl, “Perspectives: Outcasts After All?”, Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research 2005:7, p. 220–228. Also see Poul Duedahl, “Normalitet og afvigelse. Infald, udfald og affald”, in De måske udstødte. Historiens marginale eksistenser, Lars Andersen, Poul Duedahl & Louise N Kallestrup (ed.), Ålborg 2005.

69. Langford 2000, p. 304.

70. Tillhagen, vol. 3, p. 32; LUF 8168, 7960.


This article was originally published in swedish in Scandia 2015:1.